Monday, 10 October 2016

'Century' at Jerwood: John Piper

John Piper, Beach and Starfish, Seven Sisters, mixed media, 1933-4 (Jerwood Collection)

Like many British artists of his generation Piper was inspired from an early age by places – rather than people – and here he has used the avant-garde medium of collage to bring the venerable British genre of coastal painting up to date. Look carefully and you can see how cleverly he has combined paint and other media, like the fabric of the flag and the seashells borrowed from an old book, to make a familiar scene seem new and strange.

Piper is one of 100 modern British artists featured in my exhibition 'Century', which opens at Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, in a couple of weeks. In fact we're starting the hang this week (touches wood, tries not to think about railway strikes)...

Friday, 7 October 2016

Tirzah Garwood & Peggy Angus in the ODNB

Tirzah Garwood by Duffy Ayers, 1944
Earlier this year I wrote entries for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography on two remarkable women: Peggy Angus and Tirzah Garwood. The former was born in Chile to ex-patriot Scottish parents, then raised in Muswell Hill, London. She won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in the early 1920s and there met Eric Ravilious, who in turn met Tirzah when, after graduating from the Royal College, he taught her at the Eastbourne School of Art. When Eric and Tirzah were married in 1930 the two women became friends; though very different in many ways, they shared both artistic talent and a belief in plain speaking.

It was fascinating to try and condense the lives of these two immensely creative, characterful people into a few hundred words, especially given that their lives were so closely intertwined. Inevitably an ODNB entry tends to focus on the facts but I hope some hint of character comes through in the newly published essays. For anyone who's interest is piqued there is good news.

In Peggy's case, I would recommend Carolyn Trant's beautiful limited edition biography 'Art for Life', which is based heavily on interviews with Peggy - though after following the link you may want to seek it out in a library! Alternatively you could get hold of the book I wrote to accompany the 2014 exhibition at Towner - 'Peggy Angus: Designer, Teacher, Painter'. I was going to say it's a cheaper option, but people seem to be offering copies at the most terrifying prices. Must be out of print...

With Tirzah the options are rather better, as Persephone Books is about to publish her autobiography 'Long Live Great Bardfield' in a trade edition. This hilarious, insightful and sometimes painfully honest book was edited by Eric and Tirzah's daughter Anne Ullmann, and was originally published as a typically gorgeous limited edition by The Fleece Press. Illustrated with Tirzah's witty wood engravings, the new paperback is a must-read for anyone who has even a passing interest in life and culture in interwar England.

What else? Oh yes. By some quirk of timing, Tirzah is the 60,000th person to have their life recorded in the ODNB. I'm not sure if that makes Peggy the 59,999th, or the 60,001st.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Hiding Out in the English Countryside: Geoffrey Household & Samuel Palmer

David Rooney, illustration for 'Rogue Male' by Geoffrey Household, Folio Soc, 2013
Whenever I investigate an artist described as Neo-Romantic I discover that they either a. disliked the term or b. vehemently rejected it. Was there anyone who actually wanted to be thought of as Neo-Romantic, in the way that artists queued up to be labelled Surrealist? I'm not sure it's a very helpful term either, except as a description of a certain mood. You know a Neo-Romantic painting when you see one.

I have a book called 'This Enchanted Isle'. The author, Peter Woodcock, was apparently taught by Bawden and himself taught for many years at Camberwell. Aside from that I know nothing about him, but I love this book. It is everything an art history book is not supposed to be. You might call it anti-academic in its joyous mixing-up of artists, writers and film makers spanning two centuries.

'This Enchanted Isle', Peter Woodcock, Gothic Image Pub. 2000
When I first got it out of the library I baulked at the subtitle: 'The Neo-Romantic Vision from William Blake to the New Visionaries'. The new what? And then the list of names, from Palmer and Nash to Keigh Vaughan and John Craxton. So far it made sense. Blake, Palmer, then the 'Neo-Romantics'. But what about Elizabeth Bowen, Peter Ackroyd... Iain Sinclair? Powell and Pressburger, David Lean, Derek Jarman?

Instead of reading it as one would an art history book, looking for analysis and explanation and a clearer sense of how x fits with y, I dipped into it before going to sleep, reading a chapter here and a paragraph there. Gradually I realised that this wasn't a conventional book with a thesis but one built around mood, feeling and suggestion. The author had evidently spent years reading, watching and studying the various writers and artists, and wanted to share both his enthusiasm and his sense of a connection between disparate creative minds.

Graham Sutherland, Entrance to a Lane, 1939 (Tate)
One writer who was new to me was Geoffrey Household, and having read about him I rushed out to find his best-known book, 'Rogue Male'. Ostensibly a thriller about a man on the run from more or less everybody, it is evidently the work of a strange mind. The protagonist spends much of the novel hiding in a sort of burrow, in the side of an impenetrable holloway not far from Beaminster, and this experience is vividly described. On one level it reminds me of childhood den-building and grubbing about in ditches.

John Craxton, Poet in Landscape, 1941
But the thorny lane and earthy hollow are also Neo-Romantic motifs. At least they are subjects explored by Graham Sutherland and then by younger artists who were influenced by him. Sutherland in turn was the most ardent of Samuel Palmer's many early 20th century admirers. And when Palmer set to work in the 1820s portraying the Kent countryside in ink and paint and gum arabic he did so in a manner reminiscent of  Blake, cramming trees, churches, cornfields and shepherds into dense compositions, as his hero distorted human figures to fill the page.
William Blake, illustration from 'The First Book of Urizen', 1794
When I was reading 'Rogue Male' I thought about the late Tom Lubbock's description of Palmer's dense, dark ink drawings known as 'blacks':

'These pent twilit views lie snugly within their frames, with framing trees at the sides. Hills hump up at the back, the clouds close in , in the middle more trees gather into a mass, and underneath the sleeping sheep are folded into a mound, the fields of sheaves likewise. Everything is enfolded, cradled, tucked up and oystered...' (English Graphic, p141)

Samuel Palmer, Drawing for the Bright Cloud, c1831-2 (British Museum)
Later on in the same essay he describes the earnest viewers of a Palmer show (presumably the British Museum's brilliant 2005 retrospective) and asks himself, 'Are we a bunch of enclosure-seekers, hobbit-minded back-to-the-wombers? Is this bad?'

Is the urge to bury oneself in the countryside a primal human instinct, a reaction to stress or the prospect of change? Or is it a British - even English - peculiarity? I have no idea, but I'm glad Peter Woodcock wrote his book, and that he found a publisher that shared his enthusiasm.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

'Century' at Jerwood: Dora Carrington

Dora Carrington, Iris Tree on a Horse, mixed media on glass, 1920s (Ingram Collection)

This jewel of a picture was made for one of the most famous models in early 20th century Paris. A British actress and poet with a bobbed haircut and scandalous reputation, Iris Tree (1897-1968) modelled for artists as diverse as Modigliani, Jacob Epstein and Vanessa Bell. In this case Carrington has portrayed her as a modern Joan of Arc, complete with spurs and sword – an upbeat, talismanic image that Iris Tree herself evidently admired. Years later, when she lived in a one-room flat in Rome (and appeared in Fellini’s celebrated film ‘La Dolce Vita’), she had it with her, propped against a pile of books.

Dora Carrington is among one hundred modern British artists whose work will be shown in 'Century', an exhibition of paintings, sculpture, drawings and prints from the Ingram Collection and Jerwood Collection, which opens next month at the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Ravilious & Bawden at the Art Workers' Guild

Neil Jennings has gathered together an intriguing group of pictures for his next exhibition at the Art Workers' Guild in deepest Bloomsbury. Alongside drawings, engravings and lithos by Ravilious and Bawden he's showing more recent work by two artists whose shared skills and interests make them almost the heirs of Eric and Edward.

Edward Bawden, The Economy Committee, 1930 (copyright artist's estate)
Ian Beck and Glynn Boyd Harte were close friends until the latter's death in 2003, and both worked on either side of the (unnecessary) line between fine art and commercial design, as Ian continues to do.

Eric Ravilious, Introductory Lithograph, Submarine Series, 1941

For people who don't know the Art Workers' Guild I recommend a visit anyway. It's one of London's hidden delights. Besides Neil's exhibitions always seem to offer a good balance of the familiar and the less familiar - and they're always fun.

Ian Beck, Communication, 1981 (artist's copyright)
Glynn Boyd Harte painted the watercolour below shortly before his death. If I remember rightly, in fact, he had already survived one scare, and took the opportunity provided by his reprieve to produce a whole series of still life pictures like this - nobody else saw the world quite like he did.

Glynn Boyd Harte, Etrilles, 2003